Donald George puts up campaign signs for D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser in front of the Kelly Miller Middle School where Mayor Vince Gray gave his State of the District speech on Tuesday. Bowser appears to be the strongest Democratic primary challenger facing Gray. But second-tier candidates Jack Evans and Tommy Wells see ways to capitalize on the turmoil over the criminal investigation. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Senior Regional Correspondent

Now that the new corruption allegations against District Mayor Vince Gray have transformed the Democratic primary race, even second-tier candidates have renewed hope of pulling off an upset.

As early voting begins Monday before the appropriately timed April Fools’ Day election, the challenger with the best chance of toppling Gray still seems to be D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4).

But each of the two candidates behind Bowser in the most recent public poll — council members Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) — sees a distinctive way to capitalize on the turmoil.

Evans is pitching himself as Mr. Reliable: an experienced budget expert and deal maker who would continue almost all of Gray’s policies without that bothersome federal criminal investigation into the mayor’s 2010 campaign.

“What we need more than ever right now is someone with a steady hand, that people have confidence in, to get us through this crisis,” Evans said in an interview.

Wells portrays himself as Mr. Progressive: a new-style liberal seeking to shake up the status quo. He hopes to benefit from his forceful advocacy of campaign finance reform.

“The issue of ethics is now front and center, and there’s no one more associated with ethics than I am,” Wells told me.

I agree with other District political observers who view both men as facing long odds.

Evans has been awkward at campaign forums and is attempting to oppose Gray while doing his best not to criticize him. Wells has struggled to extend his appeal beyond his Capitol Hill base and admits that he has rocky relations with most other council members. His high-minded refusal to accept corporate donations means he has considerably less money than Gray, Bowser and Evans.

Nevertheless, one of them might catch fire in the homestretch. It’s hard to predict how Gray supporters and undecided voters will react to Monday’s dramatic testimony, in which businessman Jeff Thompson directly implicated the mayor in the scandal. (Gray denies wrongdoing.)

Some voters disillusioned with Gray are looking for an alternative to Bowser. As I wrote a week ago, she has drawbacks as well as strengths. Critics fault her for an undistinguished record in seven years on the council.

Evans likes to needle Bowser and Wells about what he sees as their disqualifying lack of management skills and expertise.

At a feisty debate among the top four contenders on NewsChannel 8 on Thursday, Evans turned around a jab from Bowser by saying she could be a candidate for vice mayor if the office existed.

“Then you can actually learn how to be mayor . . . because you’re going to need that training,” he said.

After I quoted Bowser as saying criticisms of her leadership were code for saying she’s young (41), Evans’s staff put together a list of his accomplishments during his first seven years as a legislator. (He’s 60.)

Evans told me he counted on picking up support from voters previously leaning toward Gray. Working against him, however, is a tin ear about how to address some issues that matter to them.

I was surprised at Evans’s response to longtime residents’ worries that gentrification threatens to price them out of their neighborhoods. He said such concerns were exaggerated.

“It’s a perception, not necessarily a reality, right now,” he said. He cited his experience with development of Seventh Street NW in the Shaw neighborhood, which he used to represent.

“The same people who were there 21 years ago are still there today,” he said.

Wells faces a similar challenge winning over people with roots in the city. He is identified as the champion of young newcomers more focused on bike sharing and a streetcar line than on bread-and-butter issues.

As mayor, Wells also could have difficulty working effectively with the council. Many colleagues dislike his sanctimonious criticisms of them.

Wells said he would work to replace council members who oppose him and would appeal to the public for support.

“People say, ‘Tommy, you’re not that well-liked by your colleagues,’ ” Wells said. But, he stressed, “The council is not set in stone.”

So what’s a voter unhappy with Gray to do? I recommend waiting to see polls taken since the Thompson plea and other signs of how the candidates are faring. If one challenger is well ahead of the others, then rally to that person.

Bowser has looked like the top alternative. But if their messages connect with voters in the new climate, then Evans and Wells might catch up.

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